It’s finally here—Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak, the balls-out Gothic romance everybody with fond memories of Rebecca and Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights has been impatiently awaiting since only, oh, last year.
Crimson Peak follows the fortunes of Edith Cushing, an aspiring writer living in booming turn-of-the-century Buffalo, New York, played by Mia Wasikowska, looking like a goth Anne of Green Gables in mustard-yellow mutton sleeves. She falls hard for down-at-the-heels aristocrat Sir Thomas Sharpe—Tom Hiddleston, part smoldering and part sulky—who comes to America seeking investment in a mining scheme. Accompanying him is his sister, Lucille. That’s Jessica Chastain channeling Mrs. Danvers and every other malign in-law from the annals of Gothic literature (and lord knows their numbers are legion). Rounding out the cast is Charlie Hunnam, subdued and somewhat sidelined as an opthamologist with a taste for investigation.
Del Toro has warned fans that this isn’t a horror movie—it’s a Gothic romance with no ifs, ands, or buts. To this concept, he commits. His atmospheric, moody movie is thick with references to the Gothic tales of the past. Allerdale Hall, the Sharpes’ catastrophe of an ancestral home, suggests every creepy baronial pile from Thornfield Hall to Hill House. The blood-red clay even hints at Southern Gothic. Someone compares the protagonist, Edith, to Jane Austen; she says she’d prefer to work in the mode of Mary Shelley. At one point, a character delivers a speech essentially lifted from Jane Eyre. Charlie Hunnam is basically Joseph Cotten’s character in Gaslight. I can’t give away the most blatant Hitchcock nod without delivering a massive spoiler, but hoo boy, it’s there.
Fair warning, though: Crimson Peak is more Wuthering Heights than Jane Eyre; more Rebecca, less Victoria Holt. Del Toro clearly means “Romance” in the sweeping 19 Century sense, not the modern publishing category. To be frank, I would have been perfectly happy with a happily ever after, but that’s not his project. Instead, he set out to deliver more Emily Bronte than Charlotte—though with a heroine you can really root for, who stands on her own two feet rather than fainting deliciously all over the place.
In Crimson Peak, del Toro is melding the hardcore Gothic of the late 18th/early 19th century—Ann Radcliffe, Frankenstein, Fuseli—with the Hollywood Gothics of the 1950s—think Orson Welles’ Jane Eyre, the black-and-white Hitchcocks starring fresh-faced brunettes rather than the signature blondes. A flyer we were handed at our press screening name-dropped Dragonwyck, for instance. So you get the really over-the-top gruesome decaying fantasia of the former, as well as the languid angles and lush soundtrack of the latter. And of course, the emotional wallowing of both.
This week, I spoke with Guillermo del Toro about the film. My tape recording program ate half the interview—clearly the true horror is humanity’s heedless reliance on technology, or else I’d have gotten his wonderful answer about how he always felt Jane Eyre and Frankenstein were fundamentally related and ultimately realized they were both “autobiographies of the soul.” But hey, there’s nothing so Gothic as a good ruin, right? Fair warning: spoilers.
JEZEBEL: Obviously the visuals were a huge part of the movie. You work very closely on the sets and the costumes, and there’s such a striking visual element of the movie. The house is a character. Could you talk a bit about your philosophy of the role that design elements play in the movie?
Guillermo del Toro: To me there is no difference between form and content. And I cannot understand why we insist on reading them separately. The costumes, the production design and the directing, from a formal point of view, respond to the same narrative desires than the screenplay and character construction.
When I write the biographies for the actors—I write a biography that is eight to ten pages long that details the characters for each actor. I give the same biographies to costume design, production design, cinematography, and we say, “How do we best express visually, symbolically through the visuals and the audio design, the same story and the characters?” I don’t go to costume design and say, “What is the coolest costume you can give me?” I don’t go to production design and say, “I want to wow them with a great set.” I go and say, “Can we reflect their character?” And every time you see a costume, of course it has to be great, but it’s also telling you who the person is. The way you color-code a movie, the way you carefully lay out the textures and shapes, is an act of narration, and I do treat it like that.
I recommend, if you are curious, to browse the book that we published, called The Art of Darkness. But I can tell you we cipher everything. For example, the house obviously breathes and bleeds, but there are other cues that we hide in the house. We hide faces in the woodwork, faces in the architecture, we hide words in the wood, I create windows that are shaped like eyes so you can feel the house is watching. Then the corridor is in the shape of a negative human form with shoulders and head, so you can feel a presence even when there is not. All the way to the basic act that even to the most layman eye, the movie is basically composed of three periods. One is in gold, which is the American adventure. One is in cyan and blue, which is the old world, and you can clearly see everything is art-directed and designed to be precisely those colors. And the third movement in the movie is the white and red limbo of the ending.
These are clearly distinguishable, clearly designed movements in the film and you carefully, throughout these movements, avoid the color red entirely except with the ghosts, the clay, and Lucille. These are visual coding that are not only telling you she lived in a golden world of progress and the future, but it tells you she goes to a world of the past and the darkness. And she has to face these ghosts that are related to the essence of the house and the essence of Lucille. The movie is layered visually to work as a visual text.
And then you can read the text.
You can read it, or choose to only read the screenplay and the characters. It’s of course a choice an audience can make. And of course you try to make those entertaining and rich. But if you want to go there and you want to read more on the writing and the audiovisual, I put it there. There’s a lot of legwork that is hidden, and we literally could go on for hours but I’d rather direct you to the book which goes on for hours! But those are some of the cues that you would find.
I loved how the Buffalo parts had that turn-of-the-century golden glow.
One of the guys that I love and revere is Henry James. And Henry James, of course, his novels are about the clash of the modernity of the West and the traditions of Europe. But also he was a great student of gothic romance, which he sort of, how would you say, de-analyzed in Turn of the Screw, and broke it down to its intimate parts and rearranged it. What he said about gothic romance is it’s about the clash of the future and the past and the ghosts represent the past. So I think that that layer is there in the narrative of Crimson Peak, for anyone who wants to discover. Buffalo, New York in 1901 was the future, was the most electrified, technified city in America, curiously enough. And then a girl from there travels to the world of the past.
You’ve been fascinated with Gothic romance for a long time. What is it about this that draws you in so much?
Because the two things that attract me the most as a storyteller are melancholy and loss. And I think that Gothic romance deals with those two things better than anything else, other than horror and fairy tales, to which it’s very closely related. I really think that the idea of melancholy is essential to Gothic romance. It was birthed out of a melancholic gaze towards the past, you know, and it was while contemplating ruins in an engraving that the idea of the first Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto, came to the mind of Horace Walpole.
So I think in the same way, there is a poetry of the past that is lost that attracts me so strongly to it. Even in a movie like Pacific Rim, which is presumably about the future, to me the entire interest that I had was about the past. I was making it about characters that need to solve their past, their most intimate moment of failure or fear. And it was very interesting for me to make it about a group of characters that were at the end of their rope, at the end of the war that was glorious once upon a time—which is the problem of Pacific Rim—but it’s not glorious anymore. We’re losing. And I tried to infuse that into the visuals, which I made rusty and decaying, and the robots are not shiny and cool, they are kind of rusty and banged-up, like real war machines.
That is in most of my movies—the same desire to gaze at the past and melancholy.
But of course what’s interesting in that is that she’s trapped in a past that’s not healthy or good. Right?
Yes, of course. But what I think is interesting is that she’s a girl from the future that sees ghosts, that sees the past, and she falls in love with a guy that lives in a land steeped in the past, but sees the future in machines. They are opposites but they love each other, and they fall in love, and then she’s grabbed on the past of the man she loves, of the family of the man she loves. To me the real monsters in Crimson Peak are the parents—the mother in the portrait and the absent father. Because I do believe that family is the source of all the love and all the horror in our life. [Laughs]
That’s a very traditionally gothic idea, right? It’s not the ghost, it’s not the monsters, it’s the weird family dynamics that are happening in that crumbling house. Right?
Mostly, you’re absolutely right, and even when there’s no family dynamics, the ultimate agents of evil in the Gothic romance are human. You can choose to play the supernatural element as very light and ambiguous, as the Brontes or Dickens in Great Expectations, or in Jane Eyre and so forth. Or you can choose to play them more openly, like the short stories of E.T.A. Hoffman or others, but I think that ultimately the agent of failure, the agent of evil, is human.
There’s this essay I keep running into that talks about this difference between Gothic horror and Gothic terror, and it says horror tends to be male and terror tends to be female writers. Do you think that that’s a real distinction—you usually work in horror and this movie is more an exploration of terror?
I truly don’t know, because to me, I can do a movie in my opinion as male as Devil’s Backbone, which is a boy’s story, or Hellboy, which is very much a male central character, or I can make a female fairy tale like Pan’s Labyrinth or like Crimson Peak, which according to Alfonso Cuarón, he says you are channeling your 14-year-old inner bookish girl. Which I would agree with. So to me, the only thing that I find is that the way we view the world, if we view it with every point of view in mind, emotionally and emphatically, then narrative needs no bias. But when you view it only from your gender exclusively as a male, you are going to have a much poorer point of view, because you are only going to be slavish to fantasies of perfection or fantasies of imperfection of the rest of the world. And I think that you need to sort of be sensitive to the fact that if you can make the characters, “good guys” or “bad guys,” be equally moving and every gender in the picture portrayed with contrast, the narrative becomes a little richer even if you are doing a very, very traditional narrative model.
It is kind of rare to see characters like the protagonist of Crimson Peak, and even to see Jessica Chastain’s character where obviously she’s a villain, but interesting and powerful and not a flat character. It often feels rare to see fully realized female characters and heroic women. Why is it important to you to create those kinds of characters?
It’s not an agenda, it’s a proclivity. You know? It’s something that’s very interesting to me, to write that way. And as a consequence, Crimson Peak was deemed very female-centric as a project and it took eight to nine years to get the financing, you know?
But I think it’s true to what makes it good for me. What makes it more powerful. It goes against a lot of the solutions that would make it more commercial or more scary. I don’t apply a Judeo-Christian good-and-bad mythology of the world, I don’t say evil is bad and good is good. I show you that evil can be very human, that the ghosts are not evil, they are sort of sad. I make it a point to allow the girl to be the rescuer, not the rescuee. And I even take great relish in giving her the lines “Wait for me, you’ve got to trust me, I’ll come back for you” to a male character. And believe or not, these are things that is less of a crowd pleaser, because it’s not working in the normal way.
But I believe in all my movies, and I’ve been doing it since the first movie until the last. I believe in taking a very traditional narrative model and then executing it with little changes all along the way. And it still looks like that narrative model and it still should sort of function like that narrative model, but in the process of changing it, hopefully it’s turned into something else. And it’s something I enjoy and some people like it and some people don’t, but I have to do what i gets me interested into a story.
How did you go about casting the people in the movie? For instance, Jessica Chastain, she’s not the first person I picture as a killer.
Casting a movie is like decorating a room. You buy a first big piece, and then you start matching or contrasting all around it. And the first firm piece of casting to come on board of Crimson Peak, the first unchanged energy, was Jessica. And then I thought, it would be great to counter her with somebody that felt energy-wise completely the opposite, which was Mia.
Then I thought Tom had a really vulnerable energy. That he could be complicit to all these things out of weakness and out of ultimately an almost childlike position, to be taken care of. I thought it was important to contrast him with Jessica. But he’s also capable of projecting a lot of menace. And you can doubt his complete goodness. It’s a really beautiful range that I think he executes flawlessly. I think the movie can be praised for its visuals and the design and all that, but I ultimately love as much if not more the story and the character creation the actors craft. In order to be a good actor’s director, I think you have to be a director of good actors. You have to cast it as perfectly as you can, and 50 percent of your job is done.
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Photos via Universal Pictures.